The wait was longer than first anticipated, but 2K Games and Turtle Rock Studios are finally ready to get the hunt underway. Evolve had the benefit of a couple of playable alphas and betas to take player feedback into account before launch. So just how does the final product stack up? We've had quite a bit of time with the game pre-release thanks to the Big Alpha and beta tests, and this actually doesn't play drastically differently from the most recent one--for better and worse.
Let the Hunt Begin
Evolve's concept is a novel one. Take the four-player party component of previous online multiplayer games and apply them against a human-controlled monster. The game mode that takes the best advantage of the concept is Hunt, which gives the monster a head-start to elude its captors and start the evolution process before the Hunters embark on a search for the creature. Hunters must use the various tools at their disposal, whether it's their Tracker class (Maggie, in particular, has a pet that tracks down the monster's tracks) or environmental cues, such as birds flying away in a panic or wildlife corpses on the ground. Sessions unfold at a fine pace, offering cat-and-mouse suspense leading up climactic battles… assuming the human controlling the monster has any kind of skill. If the monster has no sense of direction or familiarity with the map and winds up going in circles, it's a game that won't last long and won't end up being very fun.
Other game modes have their moments, but they often don't match the pacing of Hunt. Nest mode requires Hunters to take out monster eggs scattered across the map, while the monster can either protect them or hatch one of them to spawn a minion to fight alongside it. Rescue mode is a search and rescue mission that has Hunters searching for survivors, while the monster must eliminate them. Then there's Defend, which turns the game into more of a tower defense scenario. It feels like these modes don't take enough advantage of the 4v1 concept, taking a cool idea and applying run-of-the-mill multiplayer objectives. Played on their own, they feel like a disappointment.
The Sum of its Parts
Then there's Evacuation mode, which does a good job of bringing these modes together in a more interesting fashion. The Hunters and monsters compete in five rounds, each tied together in something of a narrative fashion. Whichever side wins a round will gain some sort of advantage for the next round. Subsequent rounds take place along a different part of the world and are voted on by the players, often going into one of the other game modes. At the end, a cutscene brings it all home, showing the winning side coming out triumphant, which feels appropriately rewarding, since playing all five Evacuation rounds can run for roughly 30-60 minutes.
Evacuation does have a couple of issues, though, and they mostly revolve around balance. If one side is already winning, giving that side more of an advantage is the quickest way to turn games one-sided. Turtle Rock does attempt to account for this, as the game will offer automatic handicaps if one side feels too dominant to try and balance out the advantage. However, some of the advantages I got were tactical radar support or additional birds offering monster location hints, something that didn't exactly help in the heat of combat. That led to the monster (and its boosted handicap) smoking my team of Hunters in the next round. These types of balance issues didn't happen often, but became something of an annoyance whenever they did.
The real issue with Evacuation is in the lengthy time investment. As mentioned, the five rounds take up quite a lot of time and it's hard to expect a party full of randoms to see that commitment through to the end. Fortunately, there's offline play available, which I'll touch on in just a bit.
Perfecting the Hunt
Evolve isn't as much of a mindless shooter as I expected. Playing as the game's Hunters requires a facet of skill, which means mastering their abilities. All Hunters have primary, secondary, and utility weaponry that each serve a specific function in the fight against the monster. For example, Assault class Markov's lightning gun is mainly used to deal out damage, which Support class Hank has an Orbital Strike ability that can rain down bombs on a concentrated area and punish anything that comes into that vicinity. Meanwhile, the monster must develop its skills as it goes along, making sure to eat enough wildlife to evolve to its next stage. Leveling up allows the monster to soup up its powers.
While the actual combat is fun and all, Evolve has more of a learning curve than I care for. Many of the Hunter's skills and perks need to be leveled up over the course of a couple of hours. Likewise, four of the Hunters are locked until the original four are individually upgraded. Same deal goes for the monsters, as Goliath must be mastered first before unlocking Kraken and Wraith. With each character essentially starting out from scratch, it means you'll play those first few hours feeling noticeably underpowered. Leveling up isn't exactly a quick process, either, and the grind gets awfully tiresome.
While this grind is mainly built for teams of four humans taking on a human-controlled monster, one of the most underrated aspects of Evolve may wind up being the offline component. Not enough multiplayer games out there have competent bot play and Evolve provides just that. All of the game modes are playable offline with perfectly capable bots, allowing a good opportunity to practice with any of the game's characters before jumping online.
In a world of overcrowded shooters, I've grown to enjoy Evolve and the uniqueness it brings to the table. One item that should be noted, though, is the shakiness of the game's shooting mechanics. While I mostly embraced the Assault class for a chunk of the review, that only made the iffy physics surrounding aiming and firing that much more apparent. Aiming doesn't get much easier with the monsters and when Goliath's arsenal contains a "rock throw" ability, not being able to reliably aim is a killer. This is part of the reason I wound up veering more towards classes like Support and Medic, but those looking for a solid "shooting" experience may want to take this into account.
Overall, it's a bit of a time investment, but after learning the ins-and-outs of hunting, Evolve starts to become a more engaging time-killer. Evacuation is a keen way to mix the game's otherwise uninspired game modes and its solid bot play means that I'll still be able to enjoy it even during down hours. The table for an enjoyable multiplayer session is set, whether jumping in with friends or getting more anti-social and devouring opponents as a lone monster. But considering some of the subpar game modes, I can't help but feel this package could have been something bigger.
This review is based on a Xbox One download code provided by the publisher. Evolve will be available Tuesday, February 10 in retail and digital stores, for $59.99. The game is rated M.